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Newton's season comes to end at the hands of revenge-minded Tift County
Newton senior Josh Tukes covers his head with his jersey in the waning moments of Newton's state tournament loss to Tift County Wednesday night. - photo by Gabriel Stovall | The Covington News

This time, the Newton Rams were on the wrong side of revenge. 

Tift County came to town and, thanks to a suffocating man-to-man defense, and a big night from Virginia Tech commit Preston Horne and guard Rashad Bateman, defeated Newton 75-66 in the Class AAAAAAA Elite Eight round Wednesday night, ending the Rams’ season at 28-2, while advancing to play McEachern in the Final Four Saturday at West Georgia. 

Newton coach Rick Rasmussen had said earlier in the week that he knew the Tift County seniors would be revenge-minded, given that they remembered when Newton came to Tift County two seasons ago and knocked a defending state champion team out of the playoffs. And after Wednesday’s game, Rasmussen said that fact played out in the way the Blue Devils performed. 

“I told our guys that we got beat by a better team tonight,” Rasmussen said. “I think they were more prepared than we were. I think they wanted it more. I think they executed better, and we just got beat. We didn’t have a great week of practice, and I thought that we just got outplayed tonight.” 

The Tift County post players, Horne and Fred Lloyd, showed up in ways that Westlake’s bigger big men did not last week. Horne finished with 25 points, over a dozen rebounds and four blocked shots in the game. Lloyd, while not a scoring presence with just six points, was a tremendous factor in stopping Newton guards from penetrating. 

The Blue Devils’ guards also hounded Newton on the perimeter, keeping guys like Darvin Jones from getting good looks at the basket from beyond the arc. Jones finished with 19 points, second to J.D. Notae’s team-high 25. But many of Jones’ buckets came toward the end of the fourth quarter when the outcome was already decided. 

Despite everything that went wrong for the Rams, they still had a chance to grab a lead at several points in the third quarter. 

The first came when Newton, after being down 34-27 at halftime, started the third quarter with a 7-0 run in which Newton senior J.D. Notae scored a trio of baskets — most impressive of which, a two-handed slam on which he was also fouled. At that point, Tift County’s lead was chopped down to 37-34 at the 6:04 mark of the third quarter. 

That’s when Horne rose up, burying a three pointer and then converting a three-point play on consecutive possessions to give push the Devils lead back to nine. Newton whittled it back down to a one point game at 43-42 with 2:30 left in the period, before Rashad Bateman and Horne sparked a 7-0 run of their own, punctuated by a two-handed baseline jam by Horne right at the end of the third quarter, giving Tift County a 49-42 advantage moving into the final frame. 

In the fourth quarter, Newton’s Josh Tukes scored on a lay-up, and Darvin Jones sank two free throws to bring Newton to within five, but that would be as close as they would get the rest of the way. 

Horne and Bateman carried Tift County on another 7-0 spurt, capped by a Bateman three-pointer from the corner that gave Tift County a 58-48 lead with 3:24 remaining in the game. 

From there, it was Tift’s stingy, man-to-man defense that frustrated Newton into bad shots and kept them from penetration. All night, the Blue Devils’ length and quick hands kept Newton off balance, which is something Tift County coach Eric Holland said his team prides itself on.

“We’re the best defensive team in the state,” Holland said. “I’ve said it all year. “I’ve got the best assistant coach in the country. Unbelievable defensively. We get stops, stops, stops, stops, stops. Make it tough for them. 

Rasmussen didn’t disagree.

“I knew they were a good man-to-man defensive team, and I thought they guarded us well,” Rasmussen said. “We didn’t make some shots when we could have. Early, we should’ve finished some shots to keep it close, and every time we got close they’d hit a three or something. They outshot us in our own gym. You’ve gotta give them credit. I said before the game, if they did that, they’d deserve to win and they did.” 

Tift started out hot, grabbing an early 4-0 lead, thanks to scores by Lloyd and Bateman. After a pair of Josh Tukes free throws, Notae buried a three pointer at the 6:20 mark of the first quarter to give Newton a 5-4 lead. That would be the only time in the game Newton would take a lead. 

Bateman would answer back with a pair of buckets, including a corner three pointer, that pushed the lead up to 10-5. Then Tift County went on a 12-2 run to close out the end of the period, extending its lead to 22-11 at the end of the first quarter. 

Both teams were fairly even in the second frame, trading baskets with Newton unable to whittle the double digit lead down until Notae’s three-pointer in the waning seconds of the half pulled Newton to within seven at 34-27. 

For Tift County, the win was sweet, and Holland revealed that his team was just as excited to lose the coin toss and go on the road as Newton was to have another home game. 

“God was just so great. We lost the coin flip, and that was perfect for us,” Holland said. “I stuck that thing on the wall when Newton beat us in the first round in 2015 and I told my guys we were gonna come in their gym and return the favor.” 

Although the premature end to a season in which Newton was seen as a trendy state champion pick for much of the year was a tough pill to swallow, Rasmussen said he wants his team, and Newton fans, to see and appreciate the bigger picture of what this team was able to accomplish. 

“If you put it into perspective, we’ve had a great three-year run,” he said. “Elite Eight, Final Four, Elite Eight. Two region championships. You’ll be hard pressed to find many teams in the state who have done that. I told my guys who are seniors and going to play in college, you’ll be hard pressed to do that on your college team, so it’s pretty special. 

“It only ends the way you want it for one team. The bracket we were in, you had to beat four top five teams in a row, and we beat one. So it cost us.”